How do women flirt to get what they want in NON romantic settings?
March 11, 2018 9:14 PM   Subscribe

I've been confronting myself a lot with #metoo issues. It's colored much of my thinking lately. I'm pleased that young men (25-35 y/o) in my life have asked women, including me, about our experiences so that they can be more 'woke' and just better to their female friends. But, as my classmate/colleague/study partner Dave (32M) explains, sometimes they men are "just taken advantage of" by women who "manipulate them" with no romantic intention. I'm half outraged, half fascinated that he really feels this way.

(He's not at all saying that flirtation, in whatever setting, a reason to mistreat, harass, or touch women in any way. I think he's saying that sometimes he's irritated that women "turn on the charm" or sweet talk him so that he'll do what they want. And then he has to take care to not act like a creep, which, he jokes, can be tough.)

* What do you think about a woman "flirting" with men--sans romantic intention--for personal advantage?
* For men--is that just life? We women have our currency, men have theirs?
* For women--do you flirt a little to get what you want, even in totally nonromantic settings? Does it piss you off when other women do? What do you think about her?

I'll admit that sometimes I use the fact that I'm a woman to get what I want with male superiors at work. That is, short of any kind of physical touch, I'll laugh a little bit more, wear my hair a certain way when I've been assigned a male superior to shadow for the day, sit a little bit closer, make a mental note to grab a report that they'll eventually need... so that they'll pick me for projects, so that they'll be more inclined to give me a better evaluation, so that they'll like me in general. I'll flash a big smile at a man who went out of his way to bring me something from the printer. I'll sometimes ask men questions so that they can explain--at length--something that I know that they know. Basically all of my friends are women, and I wouldn't exactly turn on the charm with them in this way.

Is this just woman operating in a patriarchal world--use what seems to work? The most charitable explanation that I can come up for myself is that, well, I'm really just taking care to be friendly, to signal that I'm safe, friendly, not a lion, not a porcupine. I wonder if I'm feeling some "well, you were asking for it" guilt ("it" being whatever sort of icky behavior all women encounter), and then I wonder whether I SHOULD feel some guilt there. Is introspection about my flirting worthwhile?

How to be a better feminist? Make no apologies? Try to behave in a gender blind way? Is this possible?
posted by flyingfork to Health & Fitness (47 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My thoughts are that ‘flirting sans romantic intention’, as you put it, is usually desperate signaling to appear harmless, childlike, weak - in order to appeal to the nurturing instincts of men. Women do this in order to avoid harm. To avoid open dominance behaviors. To avoid violence. To avoid (sorry) rape.
Why men interpret this throat-baring as manipulation - no idea, but my guess would be they can’t imagine anyone could be scared of them since they’re a ‘nice guy’? (They’re all nice guys until they’re openly rejected, of course).
posted by The Toad at 9:26 PM on March 11, 2018 [40 favorites]

Men flirt with nonromantic intentions with women to get what they want too.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:37 PM on March 11, 2018 [81 favorites]

* For women--do you flirt a little to get what you want, even in totally nonromantic settings? Does it piss you off when other women do? What do you think about her?

No, I don't flirt to get what I want. I am sometimes more wary about offending men - which means avoiding or downplaying confrontation. This might sometimes come across as me being "sweeter." But no, it's not flirting.

I don't change how I look to please men. I don't sit closer to them, and if anything sit farther away. I don't (intentionally at least) do them more favors than I would to for a woman in the same situation.

Does it piss me off to think about other women doing it? Honestly, yeah. I guess if I interrogate that, it's because I feel like they're selling the rest of us out. This is one of the most pernicious stereotypes about women: That we intentionally manipulate men's desires and that our success is due to our feminine wiles, not our brains or hard work. Even though I don't do this, I get lumped in with you.

Am I really mad at the right person, though? I don't know. I don't think that every choice a woman makes to survive in this world is necessarily the right one, but on the other hand, there are better people to be mad at.

Is introspection about my flirting worthwhile?

I think so.

How to be a better feminist?

I don't know.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:45 PM on March 11, 2018 [66 favorites]

There is a pernicious, patriarchal myth that women being nice/pleasant/friendly = flirting. This is exactly the same myth that leads to the concept of the "friendzone". I would wonder very hard what this friend of yours's feelings are about that concept, too, because I wouldn't be at all surprised if he thought it was also a thing.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:50 PM on March 11, 2018 [134 favorites]

Thinking of it as flirting is how I figured out how to do networking-type small talk with strangers. I don't touch them or make physical/appearance compliments, but otherwise the behavior is pretty much the same. Basically what restless_nomad said. I'll also note that around my late 20s I started noticing that I had previously been getting special treatment at work / in life because I was a young, reasonably-attractive woman. I didn't try to get it, people are biased, the world is imperfect. I took it as a cue to be more conscious of areas where I had been coasting on goodwill and stepped up my work ethic.

Your examples of flirting behavior at work seem all over the place to me:
*Grabbing a report a coworker will need later = basic helpfulness
*Smiling at people who do you small favors = basic helpfulness
*Laughing a little more = not a weird thing to do to try to get along with coworkers
*Asking questions you know the answers to = I do this sometimes, but not just with men. It's a way to smooth over work disagreements, and often I learn something.
*Wearing your hair differently could go either way - have these people mentioned your hair? is that hairstyle how you feel most confident? are you twirling it while you ask questions you know the answers to (I hope not)?
*Intentionally sitting closer only to men in positions of power is not great, and is also not a great look if others notice you doing it. If I pulled that, I'm pretty sure my coworkers would just scoot over or ask if I was having trouble seeing.
posted by momus_window at 10:13 PM on March 11, 2018 [10 favorites]

Seconding Kutsuwamushi’s comment. I’m working my ass off to be seen as equal in a society that largely doesn’t see me that way. I’m not trying to work “within the system.” I’d rather the system burn. To put it as nicely as I can, I really wish you wouldn’t do this. It only helps you, at the expense of others.
posted by greermahoney at 10:31 PM on March 11, 2018 [28 favorites]

I think this is worth thinking about, especially because it can be a kind of "nice guy" grey area. I too have had a lot of people in my life who I consider pretty feminist then say something like "women are so manipulative when they cry" or something and I want to-- uh-- cry?

Anyway: data point. No, I don't flirt in the workplace AT ALL. But obviously I am a little strategic about navigating my career: who isn't? So probably doing my job excellently and without interference as a woman in a misogynist culture requires some wiles, but I do think this kind of wily-ness is unisex. That this gets turned into "women are manipulative flirts" is just more hot patriarchy bullshit IMO.

I would say I am extra friendly and non-threatening and smiley so that I can also demand the things I need / advocate for myself with the same big smile on my face. I am also not in the USA and I think this influences it as well. I do present more feminine / conservatively in terms of dress and style. I definitely talk a lot about my husband which I think does help my case with my older male bosses.

When I was working as a journalist, though, and my job was to build rapport with interviewees, I definitely turned on the charm. No touching and no like, cleavage, but definitely a lot of pearly-white flashing and intentional-warm-vibe-giving and laughing at jokes. Sometimes I would replay the footage with my editor in the room and feel a little cringey at how giggly and girly I sounded. So maybe it also depends on the job description-- service jobs, retail, etc, would be much much more likely to demand that these lines get blurred because capitalism is sexist.
posted by athirstforsalt at 10:34 PM on March 11, 2018 [5 favorites]

Almost all of the things you mentioned you do at work to get ahead, I've seen young men do for the same reason. (The sole exception is changing a hairstyle for the day; I've known a few guys get their long hair cut shorter and more conservatively when it was made clear doing so would improve their opportunities for advancement.) It wasn't considered 'flirty' behavior when they did it, making for yet another unfortunate double standard.

I think Dave's female acquaintances are evaluating the type of guy he is, acting in a certain way in appeasement, and he's getting annoyed that their polite friendliness isn't signaling romantic interest on their part. Which makes you wonder what his polite friendliness and conversation, when talking to women, say, like you, means to him from his perspective.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:48 PM on March 11, 2018 [34 favorites]

There are different kinds of flirting and I think your friend is confusing people trying to flatter him a bit in return for consideration with people with actual sexual interest in him. And honestly at his age he should be able to tell the difference so that's on him.

Besides which men do this equally. No man has ever paid this guy an unexpected compliment or been unusually friendly or praised something about him or his work, then asked for a favor shortly afterwards? Because people of both genders do that to me all the time. Friends do that. I do it on occasion. It's normal human interaction. Out and out flirting isn't work appropriate but it's not illegal and it's common outside work to flirt with no intention on either side to follow through.
posted by fshgrl at 11:30 PM on March 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

Yeah, a thing to think about is how different this perceived flirting is from men trying to charm or otherwise establish a rapport with their bosses and coworkers. (If a woman invited her male boss to a golf game, would that be seen the same way as a man issuing the invitation? Trump is surrounded by both men and women catering to his emotional needs - is that flirting? I watched male students captivated by a macho, charismatic lecturer compliment him, surround him, do their best to shake hands with him - what is that? What would it be called if they were women?) Thinking about it, I see a similarity between how some women act toward men and how men act specifically toward men they consider more powerful or admirable, and that fits in with all the research showing that both men and women respect men more, listen more attentively when a man is talking, etc. Approval from someone more powerful is more valued and sought after than approval from someone less powerful, and women are socialized to see men by default as powerful. I notice this tendency in myself, and it's a deeply-ingrained, obnoxious thing.

At the same time my own experience has also been what restless_nomad said: my normal, non-romantic, same-for-all-audiences behavior gets interpreted by men as flirting. I go out of my way to not interact naturally with men, and I mean things like policing how I smile. It really sucks. I don't always dress the way I would like to because I worry that men, specifically, will think I'm dressing that way for them. I also definitely avoid anything near the equivalent of inviting them to golf games, which means I have much fewer options in networking than many men would, and is part of what people talk about when they talk about the need for affirmative action and inclusive hiring: a lot of us are just not working with the same tools at all.

Tl;dr Dave might consider getting his head out of his ass and looking more analytically at the water he swims in. Much of the"flirting" he sees probably isn't, and the women who do flirt are playing a game whose rules they didn't create and which many of them hate and are trying to dismantle. He can help, too.
posted by trig at 11:40 PM on March 11, 2018 [25 favorites]

I am quite sure that if I actually flirted with my bosses I would make them extremely uncomfortable and they would probably avoid me, not promote me. Because they are professionals with discernment. OTOH I sure as hell do try to get along with them/seem intelligent and well read/listen to them attentively. None of this is flirting and none of it is gender specific.

Maybe your friend should stop thinking of himself as helpless in response to this flirting, if it is (unlikely) indeed occurring and just ignore it?

Honestly you move closer to your boss on a seat?? Is this genuine? Fwiw I cannot imagine anyone I know doing this.
posted by jojobobo at 12:32 AM on March 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think everybody dials up the friendliness a bit as a form of subconscious manipulation, even in the case of two hetero men, women, etc. I know I’d happily swap nearly every interaction at work to be sitting at home eating crisps, bra-less and in pyjama pants, rather than asking Frank for the client brief updates ASAP, please. So I have to do insincere smiling and laughing. I put on make-up and my most flattering clothes because it gets a better, easier response. I shut up and occasionally pretend to be riveted by how clever and funny a thing someone said is to grease those social wheels, because I am quiet and unassertive and otherwise get overlooked.

At what point that becomes flirtation is a subjective line, and at the risk of stereotyping I really do think that the line is closer for most men than most women. I have a literal brain and flirting doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’ve had many, many instances of a hetero male (friends, not colleagues) misreading signals because I, say, mentioned personal body facts or (genuinely) said I found them funny. God, no, I don’t want to have sex with you. This happens much less with my female, queer, non-binary, etc. friends, even on rare occasions where I *am* trying to flirt (I’m bad at it). But guys, gosh, yes.

I think if a friendly / charismatic straight man magically turned into a woman, but acted the same in every other respect then he, too, would be accused of flirting by other men.
posted by youhavedeadedme at 12:51 AM on March 12, 2018 [11 favorites]

I think there are a couple of things wrapped up in this, and your response as a feminist can vary based on a million things--which wave you grew up in the middle of, your current age, your personal experiences, your current environment, to name just a few influences.

For instance, some women are perfectly fine with "cleavage twitch," where women stream online games on twitch while wearing revealing clothing that doesn't break twitch's guidelines. The women who are fine with it look at it like, so what, she's taking advantage of dumb shits who will tip her because she's wearing a tight tank top thinking that they might have a chance someday, what's the harm. The women who are not fine with it see her as perpetuating a stereotype about women as sexual objects whose only value is to satisfy the male gaze, and her act reflects poorly on all women, especially those women who would prefer to get paid because they're competent at something they care about. Still others would applaud that streamer for discovering that she is good at looking pretty on camera and being friendly to strangers and then using those people skills to pay rent and eat without getting into more traditional sex work, which has the potential to be physically riskier.

I could have had any of those opinions at various times in my life, but I ultimately came to the conclusion that offering myself as a sexual object didn't even get me what I always wanted: respect. In the workplace, I tried being just one of the guys, tried not to make waves when the boss thought it was funny to give me all the porn accounts, laughed at his hints that he was masturbating in his office, and I thought it was working. Until the CEO asked me to sit on his lap. And then I realized that if I blur the lines, the lines get blurred. And for me, it wasn't worth it. Some women might be ok with putting up with a low level of disrespect or harassment in order to further their career goals, but for me it turned out not to be worth it from a psychological health standpoint. And I definitely didn't want to contribute to setting some kind of precedent for women in my line of work who would not actually be fine with constant low levels of harassment disguised as humor.

With respect to your friend, I agree with people in here saying that this feeling of helplessness is bullshit. If he recognizes that he's being flirted with in order to manipulate his behavior as a business person, he always has the option of having that not be the deciding factor in any situation. If women he works with feel valued regardless of what they wear or how pretty they look and discover over time that flirting is useless, it will likely happen less often. And, of course, there's always the possibility that all this "flirting" is actually just women being friendly and collegial. I'm probably just angry, but I am really fucking sick of people thinking about sex at work all the time. Can't we just, you know, work?
posted by xyzzy at 2:10 AM on March 12, 2018 [19 favorites]

Men flirt with nonromantic intentions with women to get what they want too.

Even besides this, both men and women engage in countless other forms of manipulation: for example, beginning to display signs of anger and hostility when disagreed with—like a clenched jaw—to intimidate or deter the person disagreeing with them from expressing that disagreement, and thus avoid having to build and present a rational merit-based case for why their own preferences should prevail.

We simply don't try very hard to rely on neutral communication alone to make our way in the world. If you try to do so, you're just handicapping yourself because no one else will play by the same rules. In the West at least, we very consciously decided during the 20th century to embrace a society saturated by manipulation—just compare the commercial advertising of 1900 with that of today, which usually just involves a young, attractive person portrayed in association with the brand advertised while exhibiting happiness or some other display of satisfaction.

So OP, I would say that your conscience should not be bothered at all if you don't forswear minor non-verbal measures of manipulation, especially ones which do not involve any misleading of others or deception in factual matters. At least not until we transform into a utopian society where altruistic pure logic is the standard means of communication with others, like Star Trek's Vulcans or something.

(Feminist integrity or self-respect as a woman are different issues I don't feel qualified to speak about, but I don't think you should worry about the behaviors you describe providing you with an unfair advantage you're somehow obliged to give up.)
posted by XMLicious at 2:40 AM on March 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

For me, romantic flirting is being giggly, touching someone, leaning in to them, tucking my hair behind my ear etc. Very different to non-romantic flirting which is being friendly, a bit of banter and witty joking and just general friendliness which is totally G rated and shouldn't give anyone ideas at all. Sure, it's often to get something from someone but only because it's much easier to be pleasant and friendly if you need a favour. In a 'catch more flies with honey than vinegar' kind of way. If you are sullen and grumpy I'm not putting your request to the top of my to-do list.

Babies flirt, like when they catch your eye on the bus so you'll wave or play peekaboo. My cats flirt something shocking when they want something. Grandpa likes some witty banter and smiles. Non of these examples are sexual and are just about making the day better (except cats. They want food).

Some guys need to understand that a woman being friendly does not mean she's hitting on him, or being a tease when he realizes she isn't hitting on him. A smile can be just a smile.
posted by kitten magic at 3:12 AM on March 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

sometimes they men are "just taken advantage of" by women who "manipulate them" with no romantic intention.

I think he's saying that sometimes he's irritated that women "turn on the charm" or sweet talk him so that he'll do what they want. And then he has to take care to not act like a creep, which, he jokes, can be tough.)

So he's upset when he does something for a woman who he mistakenly thought might be romantically interested in him? Because he only did something because he wanted a payoff sexually and now he feels taken advantage of and tricked because he did something for a woman with no reward? I think he needs to examine his own motivations and own them. Otherwise this sounds like he's saying that the way he treats women is dictated by his penis and the onus is on women to make it clear whether his penis has a shot with them or not so that he can decide how to treat them accordingly. That is not what equality looks like. He would never have to worry about taking "care to not act like a creep" if he were viewing women as equals rather than potential sex partners.

I have worked my ass off to be seen as a competent, capable equal. I can't imagine flirting at work or in any other situation as a means to what I want and find the whole dynamic kind of gross. I don't want people to think of me the way your friend Dave thinks of women. I want to be seen as a person.
posted by Polychrome at 3:22 AM on March 12, 2018 [33 favorites]

This is a difficult question to answer but here is my take.

I am who I am. I do not have to make myself a sexually-attractive object to get my views across, nor my opinions heard. If I did, this is not the workplace for me. I can command respect by being my best, professional self. I do not have to be someone's stereotype, or please someone by acting a certain way, in order to get their respect. Is this being a feminist? I think so.

I have seen straight-talking, and even aggressive women climbing up the career ladder. I respect them because that is who they are and they do not hide it behind some agreeable, Nice Girl facade. I wish I can be more like them.

And yes, I am annoyed when women do this simpering Nice Girl imitation. If they were just flirtatious to everyone, men and women alike, that is just who they are, and that is their best, professional self.

But if they just turn it on for men only, well, to me, it's like the equivalent of the office suck-up (male or female), with a different flavor. It grosses me out and I feel incredibly disgusted. Like, major yucks. I can't tell you exactly why I have these feelings, only that it is very primal feeling and probably has something to do with humanity's notions of fairness.
posted by moiraine at 3:56 AM on March 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Almost every time a man thinks I'm flirting with him, he's wrong. To be honest, I've butched up to prevent that sort of situation. I have, however, used my 'feminine wiles' to my advantage on a few occasions.

*If I ever have issues with my car, I pop the hood and look sadly under it. I once ended up with three guys stopping to try and help me.

*If I'm being harassed, I will loudly cry and yell. Normally at least one guy feels like being a hero that day.
posted by Trifling at 4:30 AM on March 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

For men--is that just life?

Up to a point, yes. I ignore much workplace flirtatiousness as a fairly minor side-effect of living in a sexist world. I'd rather the women in question didn't feel obliged to do it, but I certainly don't judge them. However, I have seen it cross a line to be so overt that it's vicariously embarrassing to me. Intellectually, I still don't want to judge, viscerally I'm cringing with fremdschämen.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 4:36 AM on March 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

In college I worked at a department store's gift wrap department. I'd flirt with the male patrons to try to get tips or to get them to fill out a credit card application, for which I'd receive $1-$2 cash. It was pretty harmless, like complimenting a tie or the item they purchased. I cringe writing that, but hey, I was in college. Bills had to get paid and 3 credit card apps a day could get me lunch at Taco Bell in the food court. (that 59/79/99 cent menu was amazing). To get a tip from women I usually had to either winkingly charge them for a smaller box or be VERY fast.

Once I got into jobs that weren't as single-transaction-oriented, I didn't flirt at all because of long-term implications of being seen as wanting a relationship or not being smart enough to do the job on my own.
posted by kimberussell at 5:04 AM on March 12, 2018

I dress so conservatively at work I’ve had coworkers ask if I’m Amish. I try to be nothing more than barebones polite, and don’t even manage to be that nice half the time. I’ve still had people (men) think I was flirting due to my being polite in some crucial interactions. I also have people constantly tell me to smile or ask me where my smile went and then think I was making a pass if I so much laughed at a joke or said please and thank you.

Being nice isn’t flirting. Being nice is interpreted as flirting, which then makes it seem like it’s leading someone on to interact with them. Not being perceived as a creep can be hard if you misinterpret these cues consistently.
posted by RainyJay at 5:14 AM on March 12, 2018 [11 favorites]

It's complicated. Women do have to be nicer to get along in many environments, which can be seen as flirtatious. But there are also women who do flirt to skate along a little faster than the rest of us on purpose.

I work with a woman who does it and it is madly annoying. She even has a special laugh she uses on men which is tooth-grindingly obvious. I don't care for her at all, but the people I have a special contempt for is the men on whom her little charade works.

If you do things to get along in a bad environment that makes us all look bad, well I don't have all that much respect for you but life is hard and we all have to get along the best we can. But the men who eat it up? They're pathetic.

If your friend lets people manipulate him based on his glands, he's weak and he is the one who should work on that.
posted by winna at 6:16 AM on March 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm just going to lay out my experience, here. I am an AFAB person who lived much of their life as a visibly queer, non-beautiful woman. I made varying degrees of effort to look straight/cis-acceptable, but I don't really have the features, body shape or manner for it and was never valued for my looks or potential sexual availability. In short, "flirt to get what you want" was never an option for me.

It was frustrating enough to know that I would always be passed over for promotions (on one occasion I wasn't hired into a temp-to-perm issue because, I kid you not, I was told that I was good at the job but wasn't the type of face that the CEO wanted at the front desk - this when I had long hair and wore skirts and make-up every day!) It was frustrating enough to know that men routinely decided to withhold opportunities because they were awarding them on the basis of "if I could fuck any co-worker, who would it be".

Seeing women of my own age and experience - some more talented, some less, but basically we were all doing well enough to deserve training, promotion, mentoring, etc - do the hair-toss/sit-close thing to make sure that they were chosen was very, very frustrating. I felt that even the very slim chance that my skills would be valued was being taken away by women doing something that I categorically could not do. I experienced it as one more way that homophobia and gender bias played out among women.

Now, I recognize that working the system when you're marginalized is a normal thing to do, and I recognize that the men are the real villains, but know that when you get into the "look at my toothsome neck, let me sit next to you" stuff, other people notice and have feelings about it.

It's also pretty visible when someone brings reports and does favors for men only. TBH, if I knew you well, I would probably say to myself, "this is just something that she's doing to work the system, it doesn't mean she's a selfish or oblivious person" but if I observed it from the outside and didn't know you, it would leave a negative impression.
posted by Frowner at 6:23 AM on March 12, 2018 [14 favorites]

It's complicated. Women need to walk an awful tightrope. Everyone tells you to be yourself, but the truth is that you are judged and managed differently than a man would be. The aggression and condescension are both closer to the surface. It's unpleasant.

I have worked very hard to be likeable, always. This is because I am really terribly square and very interested in content. When I was younger, this gregariousness was often interpreted as flirting (although it wasn't) and now that I'm nearly 50, I'm drifting into nice old lady territory but at least the young execs have stopped thinking I'm trying to hit on them.

I don't judge women for anything remotely related to flirting. Too much room for misinterpretation, too much competition for scarce resources.
posted by frumiousb at 6:39 AM on March 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm baffled that everyone in this thread is accepting this premise as a given. And I think that's the big reason why you're not understanding it - it isn't.

(He's not at all saying that flirtation, in whatever setting, a reason to mistreat, harass, or touch women in any way. I think he's saying that sometimes he's irritated that women "turn on the charm" or sweet talk him so that he'll do what they want. And then he has to take care to not act like a creep, which, he jokes, can be tough.)

Women - AND men - sometimes will try, in the words of one of my old bosses, "make nice-nice" to facilitate a negotiation. that is not a "women do this" thing, that is a human thing. Categorizing this interaction as "flirting" is entirely within your colleague's head and interpretation. Which then leads to the perfect answer to your colleague - him getting irritated that women will "turn on the charm" and he gets flustered becuase he doesn't want to be a creep can be solved by him stopping to see it as flirting, because it isn't.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:52 AM on March 12, 2018 [31 favorites]

I think - it's complicated.

I tend to behave, in public social settings, in a way that is culturally normative for my family - somewhat performatively feminine, allowing 'men to feel important' - letting them tell jokes I've already heard a million times, or explain to me something I already know, or what have you. Laughing in a feminine way, downcast eyes, up-tones or husky tones in voice. And in a culturally appropriate setting, it is very effective, but also doesn't read as 'flirting', exactly - men tend to approach it as a general rather than specific thing. An opportunity for gallantry, rather than a specific attempt to get a date.

I have noticed that doing this to kind of WASPy men, especially while white-passing, tends to cause them to immediately interpret it as romantic interest. I think there's an enormous cultural difference there, and it largely has to do with a different cultural stereotype - that of women being unobtrusive. So anything outside that norm is interpreted as specific intention, and I've definitely had men who feel like they were 'led on'.

But also, I feel like that's their problem? They are the ones misinterpreting my actions in a way they believe is likely to cause them gain - and they're the ones who by their statements, wouldn't help women if they didn't think it would help their penis. And that's kind of shitty, so I don't feel any obligation to tone it down when around them, because they are the ones who are wrong for not being kind to every woman.

I don't judge other women for this, though sometimes I am envious if they are better at it than I am.
posted by corb at 7:39 AM on March 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

I think he's saying that sometimes he's irritated that women "turn on the charm" or sweet talk him so that he'll do what they want. And then he has to take care to not act like a creep, which, he jokes, can be tough.

Dave is a great example of the general adage that "patriarchy hurts everyone." Instead of Dave being concerned about his own toxic masculinity, he's concerned about one way in which (he perceives) women may have some small shred of power over him or over their surroundings. Poor Dave.

To your actual question... there is a lot of back and forth about flirting vs. friendliness. I am in a long-term committed relationship and I'm pretty careful about behavior that I would consider flirting so that I am not giving people the wrong impression. At the same time, I am usually pretty open and friendly and people often mistake that for flirting. And once I know someone thinks I am flirting with them, unless I know we are 100% on the same page (and not just the "I have a boyfriend" page but the "I am not doing this as an expression of interest in you beyond being friendly" page) I back off.

I also know a lot of people who are in long term committed relationships where even a fair amount of flirting is seen as totally AOK and the line is drawn somewhere differently. Or interpersonal flirting is OK but "manipulative" flirting isn't. I find people who aggressively flirt with me confusing, to be honest.

How to be a better feminist? Make no apologies? Try to behave in a gender blind way? Is this possible?

I think you need to be contextually aware of where you're coming from and what you're after, and I think you need to be aware of the relative status of the people in the interactions and people in other related interactions (i.e. if you're "getting" things because you're cute and smiley, think about the power dynamics in a space where that is allowed to happen, and what you can do to mitigate that and make it a more level playing field). I believe you can't be gender blind any more than you can be race blind in these situations. People's sex and gender form who they are as adults and even though it would be nice if everyone had a background in critical theory to be more mindful of how that works in the larger society, realistically, the people who are aware of these sociocultural dynamics are a teeny fraction of the people who you'll deal with in an average day in an average place.

Everyone chooses a different tack but trying to create a more level playing field for women while not resenting women for doing the best they can in their circumstances is the access move here, to my way of thinking. But it's complicated and also acknowledging that is a useful move forward.
posted by jessamyn at 7:51 AM on March 12, 2018 [13 favorites]

sometimes they men are "just taken advantage of" by women who "manipulate them" with no romantic intention

What is the context where be believes this is happening? You mention your own work experiences, but it isn't clear whether or not he is talking about this happening within the workplace, or in the world in general.

Sign me up with everyone else here who would like to point out that women get accused of being flirtatious for any and all behavior that men choose to misinterpret, so I’m dubious from the get-go.

I think he’s also conveniently ignoring how many men use the threat of violence in order to manipulate women in order to get what THEY want, and that women who smile and flatter in order to defuse those threats are not flirting in a vacuum, as it were. From men who happily use “The Implication” (TM Dennis Reynolds) to coerce women into doing what they want, to men who slam things on their desks or loudly curse to make women nervous and more compliant, to men who intentionally ignore or misunderstand what women say in order to subvert their authority and their work, to men who exploit men-only settings to have important conversations women can’t access, to men who refuse to clean the coffee pot because they know “some woman” on the floor will get grossed out enough to take care of it, to men who carefully disappear whenever they get work assignments they don’t want when a woman is on deck to play backup— are these less manipulative? Are the women subjected to these behaviors less taken advantage of?

Also, since it sounds like he believes in the friendzone, you might ask him what he thinks about the tendency of men to relegate so many women to the fuckzone, with no option to tap out or request a transfer to the friendship she actually wanted.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:55 AM on March 12, 2018 [30 favorites]

I think.... There is way too much internalized misogyny for me to ever feel comfortable that I'm truly judging an attractive woman for flirting to manipulate, when there are way too many layers of assumptions about attractive women that tend to push us there. I'm super uncomfortable with putting the lion's share of judgment onto the woman's actions if a man gives her a work assignment or whatever because she giggled and played with her hair.
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:58 AM on March 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

I don't think I've ever intentionally flirted with anyone with non-romantic intent to get something out of them. Mostly because I find the idea fairly gross (for myself, see below for my thoughts on others) but also, to be fair, because my flirtation skills are clumsy at best. I have zero illusions that any manipulative flirting I might undertake would be successful, or possibly even understood as flirting. (Bopping my first serious boyfriend on the head with a teddy bear to express my interest worked surprisingly well at 17, but probably is less effective at almost-40.)

That said, no, it doesn't piss me off when another woman does it, and I don't think anything in particular of her for it. There may be cultural or background differences at play or a need to self-protect or what I'm reading as flirting may be her default friendly mode; god knows I am a cranky little hedgehog and my behavior should not set the standard. Or, hell, she may just be making a trade-off to get through her day; she's got forty other things weighing her down and if an extra smile or compliment will get her through this interaction and on to something else, so be it. I make my own trade-offs that one could consider less than super-feminist in other areas of my life, and I tend to try to give people the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the best they can in their own lives, and sometimes I am not seeing them in the moment when they are behaving exactly as they would like to in a perfect world.

To the extent that I have a problem, it's with a man who would let his work choices be swayed by one woman's personal grooming if there's another more competent woman standing nearby being ignored, not with the women themselves for whatever choices they're making to keep afloat playing a game that they didn't ask for or design. Or with the man who decides to go out of his way to do a thing for the friend who asked nicely, but then feels taken advantage of later as if he's owed something further in trade, when he absolutely was not. The nice guys of the world need to cut that shit out; women wouldn't feel the need to use that sort of tactic as a survival mechanism if it didn't work, and the Daves of the world should own up to and address their part of the dynamic if they want to see it end.
posted by Stacey at 7:59 AM on March 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

If your friend thinks that women being "charming" (more likely, friendly) without intending to sleep with him is manipulative, he should examine that. Why on earth does charm have to mean sexual availability? What about the men who kiss their male boss' ass--which they all do--is that manipulative flirting? What about the fact that in professional and most other spaces, women basically HAVE to be friendly and nonthreatening to get anything?

He should not be going about the world resenting the women who don't want him, because that's almost all women. I don't get mad that my male assistant acts nicer and jokes around when he's asking for a day off and I certainly don't construe it as flirting.

Do you really move closer to your bosses and change your hair for them? That makes me a little sad.
posted by kapers at 8:10 AM on March 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm not prepared to judge your feminist credentials.

I will share a story. I worked with a drop-dead gorgeous woman who clearly used that beauty to position herself in marketing. She was very smart, but her skills at being beautiful kind of led the charge in the room. The nerdy grunt workers used to make faces a bit about her, me included. (I am a nerdy woman.)

She experienced a horrific incident where she was very, very badly burned. After almost a year of treatment and rehab, she rejoined the office and was assigned back-office work. We trained her and like I said, she was very smart. However she didn't have a lot of soft skills of working together in the back office, and didn't have all the hard skills yet. One day I found her crying at her desk. She said, very bluntly, "I have no idea how to get this work done! I don't have the tools to be ugly."

The company was supportive but they did let her go, and I have to say...I'm pretty sure she had a good life because she was really capable. But because she had been brought on board in part for her beauty and charm, which would have had a shelf life anyway, she was missing both a skillset and a set of colleagues who believed in her mind and abilities.

As a woman now closer to 50 than 40, I have to say I think she learned early what most of us have to learn anyway. If you are trading on your feminine charm, be careful you're not cutting your career off at the point at which charm does not cut it any more.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:15 AM on March 12, 2018 [14 favorites]

I'll sometimes ask men questions so that they can explain--at length--something that I know that they know

This bit makes me downhearted. Flirting is one thing. Casting yourself as less capable than you are in order to butter up some male ego in the hope it will help you get a better assignment or evaluation... please try not to. I've no right to ask you not to do this; I don't know your work situation and the environment in which you have to deal with people and you have outlined the pressures that impinge on your ability to be yourself and to play a role. But I'd say the same thing to anybody: putting yourself down, hiding your intellect, play-acting dumb... it will reinforce an assessment of you as less than you are.
posted by giraffeneckbattle at 8:59 AM on March 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

But, as my classmate/colleague/study partner Dave (32M) explains, sometimes they men are "just taken advantage of" by women who "manipulate them" with no romantic intention. I'm half outraged, half fascinated that he really feels this way.

As a man, I think Dave's wrong, and you're OK to feel outraged. Look, I'll be the first to admit that the patriarchy fucks with everyone. men, included. I was socialized to be a "macho" dude, and it's taken me a lot of work to break that socialization. It ain't easy, and the validation's set to reward people who behave in ways that perpetuate the patriarchy, so to speak.

Honestly, though? I don't have a lot of patience for men like Dave who say, even jokingly, that it's "tough" to not be a creep. I work with women, and it wouldn't occur to me to hit on them, or to flirt with them. They are my colleagues, and they deserve my respect. Maybe they behave in the ways spelled out in the OP, but to what? That's not an opening for me to behave in an inappropriate manner. That's just how women have been conditioned to behave.

And it's my job to put that aside, and to treat them as my professional colleagues.

This sounds to me like Dave needs to put in some work, instead of complaining to you.

(sorry if this is rambly, but as a dude, guys like Dave drive me up the wall).
posted by arkhangel at 9:16 AM on March 12, 2018 [11 favorites]

I found this Ask fascinating, because it touches on something I've found strange all my life. I'm aspie, so I don't spot most social cues. And flirting? Forgettaboutit. I have had one flirtatious exchange in my life, and that was in my mid-fifties, and afterward I congratulated myself for finally, finally having figured out how to successfully flirt. Yeah, some milestones come late.

Anyhow, I've always found it really peculiar how guys would voluntarily give/do things to/for selective females. Without even being asked! I watched guys flock around my older sister and do the darndest things for her, and I thought, How strange. I was even more nonplussed to have it occasionally happen to me, even though I was not very attractive, definitely nerdy, and not initiating contact with the guy. Why is this strange guy suddenly offering to do something for me or give me something? 'Twas a puzzle. But if I could use it, I accepted his offer with thanks.

I never recognized that as flirtation. I thought he was just being helpful for some reason unknown to me.

Like I said, I never intentionally flirted, cuz I didn't know how. But I do find people and especially their obsessive interests fascinating, so if a guy was to talk to me about his interest in a certain band, or sport, I'd pay deep attention. If he viewed that as flirting, I didn't. I was just interested that he found that thing interesting.

I did once have a guy friend out of the blue just uncomfortably ask me if I was coming onto him. I was amazed, and asked him what caused him to think that. He said it was because I was blinking my eyes a lot while I was looking at him. Yes, I was blinking a lot, because I was wearing my thick contacts, which hurt if I didn't blink a lot to keep them moist. I was completely dumbstruck that he interpreted something as basic as blinking as a come-on...?

Seriously, social mores are really strange when viewed from an outsider's perspective.
posted by Lunaloon at 9:18 AM on March 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

Your friend should also be aware of the differences in how he interprets friendliness from say a young hot woman vs the same level of friendliness from say an older woman he doesn't see as attractive/sexual. This may help him realize he's applying his own lens/desires to female behavior.
posted by kapers at 9:46 AM on March 12, 2018 [16 favorites]

A woman who recognizes intuitively what she needs to do to successfully interact with, learn from, and perhaps even rise above the power/influence level of the men in her life... A woman who recognizes that an institutional system cannot be changed by protesting from without but only by influencing from within... A woman who neither internalizes nor externalizes shame about her ability and desire to execute strategic gender interactions... This woman does not need to worry about being a "better feminist" IMHO, though self-improvement focus in general has inherent value. This woman can congratulate herself on her causal analysis capability, practicality, and bravery. Bravery even in the face of those other, "better" feminists.

As to the male friend, I know the kind. Whining about how it's so hard to understand someone who doesn't think exactly like him and doesn't worshipfully replicate his chosen rules of engagement in life or business. It all sounds like a prelude to justification of an ownership claim on another person's emotions or body. Men tend to enjoy the process of acquisition and dominance of women and look for reasons to excuse that tendency because of alleged signals he's sniffing for in her behavior. The friend's complaints are a mild form of this and not something women need to apologize for. I think there's even some jealousy in it on the man's part, jealousy of a useful form of emotional intelligence he may never master.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 9:49 AM on March 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Your friend should also be aware of the differences in how he interprets friendliness from say a young hot woman vs the same level of friendliness from say an older woman he doesn't see as attractive/sexual. This may help him realize he's applying his own lens/desires to female behavior.

I think your friend should also interrogate how they themselves behave when they want good customer service or whatever, because while there's a lot of people in the world who go with this terribly underhanded plot of "being nice" or "seeming like a cooperative person who should be given good customer service" there's also people who are just flaming bags of nails from the first interaction* and if that's how he's living his life, it may also explain why his coffee tastes so bad and his work computer seems awfully slow.

*And while that's a tack men often choose, he should see also: Ms. Wants To Speak To The Manager.

I myself find that my work life, as an example, is generally more pleasant when I am not unpleasant. Lots of people feel that way. Lots of people feel like they're supposed to be nice in particular when they ask for things. Why doesn't he? What does he believe he's owed?
posted by Lyn Never at 10:29 AM on March 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

This Ask is so fascinating. At my job, I don't have to do performative femininity because a. I have an awesome boss and no desire to be promoted and, more importantly, b. my husband is part of the site leadership. That's a horrible reason, but it's true, and as a result, my work persona is actually a lot, um, crankier, than actual me. I have been told that my work persona intimidates older men, which means I'm the one who is dispatched to deal with them when they're being problematic. My work persona has also somehow earned me the respect of misogynist men who wouldn't listen to other female trainers (they didn't know about husband, being new, so it wasn't that). BUT. While it's a nice release to give no fucks for eight hours a day, it's still not an accurate representation of who I really am. It wasn't until I read this thread that I realized that I was using my protected status to do the opposite of all the performative femininity mentioned, all the things I had to do for years before this.
posted by Ruki at 11:22 AM on March 12, 2018 [9 favorites]

So many excellent responses.

I think there's a continuum of behavior that encompasses both romantic flirting and normal, respectful interaction. There was a recent about how to be charismatic, and I think some of the conceptions in play there apply here. There are nuances that separate flirting from acting in a charismatic way, but some people (read: Dave) lack the ability to tell the difference. Somewhat paradoxically, some people recognize these fine nuances but can cater their approach to people who lack the ability to tell the difference -- they use more heavy-handed ways of expressing themselves that read as flirting, because it's what works.

Then there's the people who don't know the difference between using compliments and friendly gestures and flirting on both ends of the equation. It's complex. Maybe Dave is a big dummy when it comes to flirting and thinks he's being flirted with. Maybe some people have realized Dave has no nuance and just flirted with him because they know he can't tell the difference anyway so they may as well pour on the charm.
posted by mikeh at 1:13 PM on March 12, 2018

Being nice isn’t flirting. Being nice is interpreted as flirting, which then makes it seem like it’s leading someone on to interact with them. Not being perceived as a creep can be hard if you misinterpret these cues consistently.

Yes, this. There are many studies out there saying that if a man has sexual interest in you, he interprets everything you do short of yelling and spitting on him as a "come on," even though I, for example, am about as flirtatious as your average rock. THAT is what your uh, friend is referring to.

Also, I love the "fuckzone" remark. Damn right.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:56 PM on March 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

In my experience on the male end, this is not very common. There was one sales person attached to our account who was flirty, which I always found kind of a gross approach to sales, so I was glad when she moved on. There was also a male sales person attached to our account who was obsessively obsequious, and I found that annoyingly transparent, but he was good about working with us, so I didn't mind and was a little bummed when he moved on. Now I'm wondering if I had different reactions to similar behavior for gendered reasons.

I haven't noticed any of my employees or coworkers being flirty, and I would probably find that really uncomfortable.

Really, the only place I see this is with waitresses. It's their job to be nice and attentive and based on responses above, it's possible I'm just misinterpreting that, but it sure feels flirty a lot of the time.
posted by willnot at 5:18 PM on March 12, 2018

There are many studies out there saying that if a man has sexual interest in you, he interprets everything you do short of yelling and spitting on him as a "come on,"

A good example of this is how many men think a woman wearing a bag with a cross-body strap is putting it between her breasts intentionally, to draw his attention to them. Yes, I have heard this from actual men.

Now, I'm a woman and I'm probably not a prime target for waitresses to flirt with me, but I've been a barista - and had my normal friendliness mistaken for flirting.

I've already commented, and in my response I assumed that the flirting was happening because the original poster felt like she was flirting. But my response to the friend would be, "She's probably not flirting with you, bro." It could be happening - it's within the realm of possibility - but it's less plausible in my experience than a man imagining signals that aren't there.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:33 PM on March 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

I work with a Dave, and I am getting tired of his sulking about how:

-he just can’t treat women the same way as men
-women seem to think he’s unfuckable (his words) because he is overweight and poor (as though his personality must have nothing to do with it, or as though his health and finances demand “need based aid” of some kind)
-he’s been “falsely accused” of doing bad things because of “miscommunication”
-he couldn’t be expected to understand that a woman he saw flirting with another man responded negatively to the same flirtation from Dave (as though any woman who ever flirts in public is Open for Business)

I used to hang out with some Daves as well, often because a woman friend had attracted the Dave with her Chill Girl mating calls, but also sometimes because I felt sorry for the Dave. Inevitably the Dave started guilt-tripping every woman in sight who didn’t reward him with sex for holding a door open.

I really recommend not socializing with your Dave if he shows similar signs.

Onto workplace flirting: the only time I’ve done it to “get what I wanted” was when I wanted to make out with the person I was flirting with. I know plenty of men and women who have used flirting to get tips, promotions, sales, deals, etc., but plenty more whose politeness was mistaken for flirting by the Daves of the world.

And whoever instigates it, deliberate commercial flirting is not a binding agreement to put out later. Google “Taylor the Latte Boy” for an example of the potential for miscommunication in this realm.
posted by armeowda at 6:40 PM on March 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

There's a lot I find, well, icky about this question. Essentially you say that you are asking to be mansplained to, when you ask questions that you already know the answer to in order to let men explain it to you and feel better about their skills and knowledge. You are actively damaging the perception of your knowledge and intelligence, so I'm not really sure how you expect "not knowing stuff" to equal "promotion." Having someone like you because they feel that they can patronize and talk down to you seems somewhat counter productive. If you feel you must do that, fine.

But please please please stop sitting closer to men that you work with, just because they are men. It's just not appropriate from any stand point. It could be considered harassment. Imagine - "I'm a happily married man but the woman I supervise keeps doing her hair up fancy and sitting too close to me when we have to work together. I move my chair away but she just laughs and scoots closer to me."

Besides potential harassment and making someone else uncomfortable by invading their space and sexualizing the workplace, you are basically tell men that it's ok to marginalize you and treat you as a warm body with breasts instead of a person with a brain. And the tables can turn very quickly - you sit close to them to try to get them to like you, and it works to well, and next thing you know you've got a hand on your ass.

Bad move all around, and from an outside looking in, I would absolutely have a negative perception of your interactions with your male coworkers and supervisors based upon the way you've described it here. It would look to me, just from these two things (plus maybe the hair), like you were trying to sleep your way into a promotion. As I say, icky.
posted by firei at 6:49 PM on March 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Argh. This is really difficult.

(a) Dave is a putz. If he's being sexually harassed by women in the office, that's a problem and they should stop, and he should complain to HR, but it doesn't sound as if that's what's happening. If he feels manipulated because a woman smiles at him, he should grow up.

(b) Are you treating men differently than women? Maybe? Some of what you're talking about sounds like treating supervisors differently than equals -- "make a mental note to grab a report that they'll eventually need" is either being sensibly thoughtful or sucking up, depends, but it's not flirting. If you'd do that for a male supervisor but not a female supervisor, that's fucked up of you, but are you really differentiating based on gender that way? Also, smiling at someone who got you something from the printer -- would you really not smile at a woman who did you a small favor? If you would, than smiling at a man isn't flirting, it's ordinary manners.

It is hard to flirt with someone who's not flirting with you -- if you're in a situation where male supervisors are being flirty with you and expecting you to be flirtatious in return, that's kind of fucked up, and ideally you wouldn't be participating it, but you're not driving it out of nowhere. If you're introducing flirtatiousness (as opposed to gender-neutral friendliness/helpfulness) into a relationship with a supervisor who wasn't inviting/initiating it, you really shouldn't. But drawing that line is something you're going to have to figure out for yourself, and you can't put any kind of friendly interaction with a man on the wrong side of it.
posted by LizardBreath at 10:43 AM on March 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

My work environment, as far as I can tell, is not screwed up so badly that women have to perform being harmless and present themselves sexually in order to make a decent living. I understand that women essentially have to do this in order to get tips, for example, and I think that's wrong, and hope for sick systems like that to be fixed as soon as possible, because I believe we should be all judged on how well we do the actual job.
At my workplace, where no one needs to present themselves in this way necessarily, consciously behaving flirtatiously to try and get ahead is wrong for many reasons and I would actively dislike people who did that. As mentioned in other comments, it throws other women who don't want to do that, who just want to do our jobs without having to perform some variation of "tee hee I'm harmless and also maybe sexually available" at the same time, under the bus.
It doesn't just make the working environment less friendly for other women. Sitting too close to people on purpose? That's kind of wandering into sexual harassment territory. It could make people uncomfortable. You shouldn't do it.
Normal friendly to everybody regardless of their gender that doesn't potentially violate anybody's boundaries or make your workplace a shittier place? Yes! Do that instead.
Your friend should similarly do what he can to not participate if women are really flirting with him? When necessary, name the behavior. "Sorry, I don't talk about sex at work." "That's not appropriate." "You're standing a little close, sorry." "Excuse me?" At the very least, don't respond positively. Don't normalize it by playing along. Don't do anyone any special favors for it. Women should not have to do this.
posted by sacchan at 12:00 AM on March 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

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